Bach — St. Matthew Passion

Obedient as always to the commands of the Panhypersebastos of the VDP, and particularly his desire to see more reviews of choral music, here is another from the Berlin Philharmonic archive. There are two performances of this work, one in 2010 (hereinafter 2010) and one in 2013 (hereinafter 2013), both with Simon Rattle as conductor and Peter Sellars as stager. These performances are an interesting attempt to move a choral work in the direction of opera, as Sellars has the chorus in almost constant and dramatic motion.

This work is 3 hours plus, and there are two performances here; I daresay few of the VDPers are likely to tackle all 6 hours, so I have prepared the following recommendations for those who want to sample the best parts:


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1) Opening chorus of the 2010. Note there are two antiphonal choirs (and orchestras), so you get one of the greatest examples of antiphonal polyphony. Also note the movements of the chorus.


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2) Turn now to the Sellars interview following the 2010. In it he explains how and why he does his stuff. I found it very instructive and even moving. The choristers are really choreographed, and sing always by heart, no scores ever.


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3) Opening chorus of the 2013 performance. Here you see what Sellars said in the interview now put in practice, and with an understanding of why he is doing it.

4) Staying with the 2013, go to the last piece in Part I, the mighty choral setting “O Man, bewail thy grievous sin” (sung of course in German, “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß”), perhaps the most famous piece in the work.

5) Final chorus of the 2010, with lots of operatic choreography.


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6) Final chorus of the 2013, overflowing with pathos.


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Traditionally, audiences do not applaud after the St. Matthew, because of its somber sacred theme, but both the 2010 and 2013 audiences are non-traditional and did applaud.

This mighty work, first performed in 1727 and revised 1743-46, is so demanding of resources and preparation that it is rarely performed; I’ve attended maybe 3 or 4 live performances in my 89 years, and all were statically traditional. When I first heard of the Sellars innovations I thought they sounded like a gimmick, but now that I’ve seen them and their dramatic effect, and heard his explanation, I feel differently.

Thomas Lemann


One Response to “Bach — St. Matthew Passion”

  1. Thanks to the esteemed T.B. Lemann for this. The Rattle/Sellars production caused a sensation when it was performed at the Park Avenue Armory in NYC last fall. I couldn’t get a ticket.I have long believed this is the single greatest piece of music written, ever since I heard my first recording of it made in the 40’s I think by Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw. His romantic interpretation would likely be out of fashion today, but it was sublime. Since then I have heard quite a few live performances including Jonathan Miller’s semi staged version at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and at Carnegie hall Ivan Fischer conducting a small orchestra and chorus (very fine) and the NY Oratorio Society Chorus (over 150) and orchestra directed by the excellent Kent Tritle. The latter is a very good amateur chorus that shone in the chorales. I own two recordings – Phillipe Herreweghe and John Eliot Gardner’s versions. I don’t think you can beat Gardner and his Monteverdi Choir as interpreters of Bach’s choral works.

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